An unofficial transcript of the podcast episode by Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan.
LB: Hello and welcome to Skeleton Songs.
AK: Spooky hello. We were gonna talk about unreliable narrators today, but the more we set up for that, the more we realised it’s probably more interesting to talk about reliable narrators, because when you stop to think about it, it’s weird that you have reliable narrators in a novel, isn’t it? Because we spend a lot of time saying, there’s two sides to every story, um, raise your hand if you’re not driving and believe there’s two sides to every story, and then keep your hand up if you believe there’s two sides to every story if it’s a fictional story.
LB: Why driving?
AK: Because I don’t want people to go off the road and die.
LB: Oh, okay, this— this is a safety-first podcast.
AK: Oh yes.
LB: It’s important. Yeah, and I mean, I think it’s, it’s not so much, necessarily, the, the two sides to every story, although of course that’s true, I think it also depends how philosophical we want to get about it. I mean…
LB: We, you know, you can get into the whole [ream?] of what is truth, and this Baudrillardian concept that if you don’t personally experience it, and even then it will only be a facet of the truth, there isn’t really a truth, um…
AK: And I think that’s…
LB: All that tends to end up in, in Reddit forums, right, maybe…
AK: Exactly, so, so this, this is why we want to talk about reliable narrators rather than unreliable narrators— because as soon as you start talking about the relativity of truth, there’s usually a pause for someone to take a hit from a bong, and…
AK: And we, we— this is a bong-free podcast.
LB: I was just gonna say, I would like to confirm there are zero bongs— both you and I probably are not bong-friendly people.
AK: Apart from Big Ben, which to be clear is a UK landmark and not a particularly large bong.
LB: We’re also euphemism-free! Although sometimes you might think otherwise…
AK: Reliable narrators. It’s… very difficult to think of a circumstance when you are telling an anecdote from your life and you put everything in, and it’s very difficult to think of a novel, where you know literally anything about what happened to the characters in the same way that you would if you had a camera running 24/7. And it’s very difficult to think about a documentary or a reality show that has cameras running 24/7, that doesn’t still make editorial choices. And it’s very difficult to, I forgot the, the last, oh, games, yeah— so…
LB: Oh yeah!
AK: If you think about really, really detailed simulations in games, uh, detailed simulations leave a lot out. I wrote a piece about this to gamesindustry.biz, uh, years ago, and, I mean, toilets obviously.
LB: Oh my god.
AK: But this— but that’s the, exactly the thing, it’s ‘oh my god’, so…
LB: Literally less than three minutes in.
AK: Ah, a thousand pages of Lord of the Rings, and we don’t see anybody have a poo.
LB: No, ‘cause that guy has class.
AK: But that’s exactly the thing— they’re camping; when you’ve been camping, you know latrines are an issue…
LB: I’m not talking about my experiences of this!
AK: And my point is that you’re right, ah, Tolkien has class, so he doesn’t talk about Aragorn’s bottom, but…
LB: Oh my god, you see, I thought we were gonna go down the much more academic route of, you know, move this to its extreme and it’s the map that’s the size of the world, because it’s the only way to fully represent the world, is to make a facsimile that is exactly the same as the world, thus reducing the point of having a map. But no, we went down…
AK: Well, that’s…
LB: …the latrines and bums route.
AK: that’s the same point. But this is the thing, is, is, is Tolkien is right to leave out latrines.
AK: I don’t think it would add anything. If you’re writing a gritty fantasy thing that reminded us how muddy the Middle Ages were…
AK: …then you would. And similarly, I can think of a lot of simulations, erm, which, game simulations which include toilets and plumbing, and I can think of a lot which don’t, and I don’t think either one is better than the other, but for example, you know, Rimworld, the gritty survival sim, doesn’t have toilets. Prison Architect, a gritty prison management sim, does have toilets. Because we think more about toilets when we think about prisons.
LB: Some people don’t think about toilets!
AK: Did you know, um, that—
LB: Are we, [is this still the riff?]
AK: This is, this is the [riff?], but it’s relevant.
AK: Um, in Prison Architect, female prisoners are modelled as having a, um, higher hygiene need than male prisoners.
LB: I think that’s a very interesting decision that the designer has made.
AK: Right? And, designers, in fact, I believe, but, ah, both men, as far as I know, er, and so I think many people would expect that, um, women often have more exacting hygiene standards than men, and many people would say, maybe that’s sexist.
LB: I think peop— men just need to pull their socks up, frankly.
AK: Well, the particular reason that they…
LB: Letting their side down!
AK: Um, the, the, they wanted to represent women as having a higher hygiene need, is because menstruation’s an issue in women’s prisons.
LB: Hm. No, I’d, I’d understood that.
AK: Sorry, I’d better not, heh… the [half who are already into it?] are men, might not have, I mean it didn’t occur to me when I was [inaudible] this.
LB: Right. Okay. Fair enough.
AK: Or again, my other favourite example is that, that basically the London Marathon is always won, um, by Kenyans or Ethiopians. Um, for genetic-environmental reasons. Um, but if you put a, if you, if you built a marathon simulator, that represented, you know, it always being won by Kenyans and Ethiopians, then that would raise some complicated issues. So there’s always editorialising, even when something looks like a simulation, and to take it back out to the old literature, there were decisions being made about what to put in, in a piece of fiction, all the time…
AK: Um, and, and, and it’s fine for us not to notice those decisions, but it’s interesting for us to notice them.
LB: Mm. And even when you, I mean, there’s, there’s often a, um, distinction drawn between the type of narrator, whether it’s first-person, whether it’s, sort of, framed, whether it’s epistolary, and, and most people would probably say that the most believable, ah, narrator, the most trustworthy narrator is the third person omniscient narrator, which is essentially me saying, you know, ‘Alexis went over and did that thing’.
LB: And there’s no implication on the page that I am deliberately doing something cunning, or that you’re in any way likely to not be doing what I have just said that you were doing.
LB: Um, but even that, as you say, because it is not representing everything, it’s not saying it was Tuesday the 31st of whatever and, and he had hair that looked a bit crazy and the wind was this degree.
LB: So it’s, it’s actively, just by the act of streamlining, er, reality into a narrative, making it quite an interesting choice about how much you can actually trust it.
AK: It is, and it’s interesting you say that, because one of the things that games and interactive narratives do differently from traditional literature is, they tend to use the second person, which is not unknown in, er, traditional literature: I think…
LB: Not a fan of it.
AK: Yeah— I think, well, I think, er, a, a friend of ours actually just did it in her second book.
LB: Well, I take that back…
LB: It— it’s great, apart from when Jeanette Winterson does it, we’re still in a fight.
AK: Anyway. Um, so, generally, if you’re reading a piece of interactive narrative, it will say ‘you’: ‘you fall down a pit’, ‘do you (a) bewail your plight, or (b), ah, play a jaunty tune on your harmonica?’. But in… and in Fallen London, equally, we said, ah, ‘you’, in Sunless Sea everything I wrote said ‘you’, everything everyone else had wrote said ‘you’…
LB: Again, just a proviso for people who haven’t heard of those games, Fallen London and Sunless Sea are both games that Alexis developed, um, the gothic tradition, text-based but very much a video game.
AK: But, um, Machine Cares!, which is one of the other games that I worked on at Failbetter, although nobody’s ever heard of it because, ah, complicated story, um, and Cultist Simulator, which is obviously a, a game we built at Weather Factory…
LB: Wooo! Represent! Buy the game!
AK: Both of those use the first person. Ah, al—although it’s the player, and what…
LB: They do, and it’s not annoying, actually! I never really thought about that. I really do find this sort of ‘you’ quite patronising in, in, in literature…
LB: But there’s something about… it being used in your game which feels natural, and I have not grown up, um, I’m a bit younger than you, so I didn’t get a chance to experience the, the true kind of interactive fiction…
AK: Gamebook stuff.
LB: …parser experience…
AK: Oh, the parser stuff, yeah.
LB: …all, all the gamebook stuff. So, so there’s never really been a, a fashion while I’ve been, you know, roughly conscious.
LB: For having this sort of, ‘you do this’, ‘you do that’. But for some reason in games it really works. I don’t know why.
AK: I think… well, the, the interesting thing for me is that most people haven’t noticed, it’s, it’s not something that’s often remarked on.
AK: But it’s something I’ve found quite tricky when I’m writing it, because it’s not unusual for me to… write a chunk of text for Cultist Simulator and then realise I’ve absent-mindedly written it in the second-person, and have to go through, and obviously the square bracket text, the metatext, in Cultist Simulator does say ‘you’, but the reason I did it is because we found, when we were making Machine Cares!, that to our surprise, using ‘I’ created a feeling of distance between the player and the text that wasn’t present when you said ‘you’. Because it implies— who, who’s the I, it can’t be you, because you’re reading it and you’re not writing it.
LB: That’s really interesting!
AK: But it, it, so, it has to be somebody different, so even though it’s in theory more close, it, it provides a bit of safe, um, interval, and when I was writing Cultist…
LB: I know what it is.
AK: Go on.
LB: Well, I think it will be because ‘I’ implies an existence, it implies an I.
LB: Whereas ‘you’ doesn’t actually imply any existence outside of the person who is on the receiving end of ‘you’.
AK: Mmmm. Mm.
LB: With the exception of, of, you know, there has to be somebody to say ‘you’, just, to address the person. But that doesn’t seem to, to, sort of, snag in the mind. But somebody says ‘I’ and you immediately think ‘Well, I didn’t write this book’.
LB: So there has to be a sort of second entity, who, who wrote this narrative, who is distinct from me. That’s interesting!
AK: So it is, but, but, ah, the reason I did this, specifically, because in Cultist there are a lot of things you do, um, which are, it’s reasonable to describe as morally questionable.
LB: (stifling a laugh)
AK: And, you know, that’s part of the point, is, is that it’s a game where you’re the antagonist, some of the time. But I wanted people to feel a bit more distance, so that it’s more like reading a post-Lovecraftian diary of somebody who’s done weird things, than it’s about them actually deciding to, um, eat somebody from the skin down, or, or, whatever.
LB: Well, ah, that’s pretty interesting you bring that up, because this isn’t gothic, it’s, it’s later than that, it’s 1950s, but, um, this makes me think very much of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous book.
LB: That certainly makes you, as a father of a ten-year-old girl, feel very uncomfortable. And it’s slightly less uncomfortable reading for me, just because I don’t feel quite as, sort of, sp— specified.
LB: But of course that does exactly what you said about Cultist, that deliberately places the reader in a slightly complicit…
LB: …with the narrator, who’s very charming, and who totally isn’t trustworthy, um, and it makes the reader engage with his story, that most people in this world would say is the worst story of all, you know, abusing a kid, or, or, and sexually assaulting a kid and raping a kid, is, is, you know, most people think that’s actually bottom of the list. And if he had done it in a way that used a much more trustworthy, ah, distanced narrative technique…
LB: If he’d said, you know, ‘Humbert Humbert did X’, most people’s response would be pretty simple, it would be, ‘Well, Humbert Humbert is a douchebag’, and ‘Humbert Humbert should go to prison’. Because that’s the sort of stuff you read about in the newspaper.
LB: But the way that he, um, chose to make Humbert Humbert the narrator, you intrinsically get the sense of a slight kinship between the reader and the author.
LB: Because the, the, the person speaking through the text is taking the reader on their journey.
AK: There’s a sort of, what’s, what’s the word, it’s… it’s like, it’s like he’s, he’s confiding in you, that’s the, the sense of it.
LB: Yeah, I think, I think he, you know, we, we talk a lot when we hear people, er, celebrities or people we don’t know terribly well on, on, on some form of media, talking the truth about themselves, we talk about it as sort of opening up and being vulnerable, and there’s definitely a vulnerability about Humbert Humbert that you wouldn’t normally get from coverage of, of a man doing really awful things. Um, and I, I think it’s just brilliantly clever, because it doesn’t say “Humbert Humbert’s a great chap, apart from all of this stuff”, but it also allows you to engage with a really difficult topic in a way that most people are just like, ‘nope, that’s (inaudible) for me, and I’m not gonna do it’. And that’s why it’s so controversial, obviously, because lots of people just feel like it’s not comfortable to take…
AK: So my, my, my experience with it, I, I think we talked about this, my experience of Lolita was, ah, so, I, I love Nabokov, there— there you go, hot take, Nabokov is a good auth— a good writer…
AK: And, er, but, er, and I, I particularly love the, the firework effect of his, his prose, there’s this, sort of, persistent legend, maybe a myth, that he had synaesthesia, and that makes a lot of sense…
LB: Oh yeah…
AK: But I couldn’t finish Lolita: I made it three-quarters of the way through, past a lot of the stuff that is probably nastiest, and I just sort of ran out of endurance. And to be clear, um, if anybody wants to burn a copy of Lolita, I want to burn them. Er, I think it, it, you know…
LB: (stifled laugh)
AK: Literature, especially literature of that quality, but even literature of any quality gets a fucking pass, freedom of expression is king. Um, and the fact that I couldn’t finish it doesn’t mean it’s a, a, a bad book.
LB: Well, you shouldn’t feel obligated to, you know, it’s deliberately setting out to do something difficult, and if you don’t want to read that, that’s fine.
AK: But the, but the particular thing— so I think I, I, I had a, like, three, five, or whatever she was daughter at the time, which probably contributed to my discomfort.
AK: But also, the, the thing that really finished it for me is, I started to feel that Nabokov was, because he’s a fucking genius, deliberately, um, paralleling the sort of confiding intimacy of Humbert Humbert, um, with the fact that he’s describing quite an unpleasant story, in absolutely, um, pellucid, fascinating prose. So there’s this real feeling of corruption, that you’re…
AK: …reading a horrible story, um, in a wonderful voice, and I thought, you know, uh, I reckon that Nabokov is doing this deliberately, that he knows what he’s doing.
LB: I, I suspect it [as well, actually?].
AK: And I respect him, him doing it, but I don’t think I want to stick around for any more of it.
LB: No, and I think, I think, um, that’s something he’s actually commented on, ah, personally. He said that, um, you know, apart from the controversy, and apart from the fact that I think he and most people would consider it his masterwork, um, there was a lot of debate about people not liking it, and picking it up, and that debate was not so much actually that they felt complicit in a difficult narrative that they didn’t want to talk about, but was because a lot of people picked it up thinking it was going to be an erotic novel.
LB: Um, because, you know, let’s face it, there is this uneasy distinction between youth and beauty and, you know, the male voyeuristic narrative of looking at a, a younger woman who’s very attractive and who, he’s having sexual fantasies about her. And a lot of that is very healthy and normal and a lot of people would like to read a book that is about that! I mean, bodice-rippers are basically… that, you know, from, from a male or female perspective. So a lot of people picked up Lolita expecting it to be a sort of slightly naughty tale about maybe a slightly young lady, um, and apparently, Nabokov said, you know, the first thirteen chapters are deliberately erotic, they are meant to make you feel those things that, um, Humbert Humbert feels, and make you understand the sexual attraction that this guy has for this young girl, um, but basically beyond that point, and you know, there’s something like 40, 50, 60 chapters, um, it’s a, it’s a really depressing miserable tale of this sort of once-brilliant pipe dream from Humbert Humbert’s perspective turning out to be the reality of, er, you know, taking advantage of a child. Which isn’t a fun ride and nobody has a good time.
LB: Um, and, and Nabokov said, you know, people came into the book expecting one thing, got halfway through and realised the book actually was going in a different direction and got really fed up and left it. So apparently there are lots of people who have not finished Lolita but have started it.
LB: Um, for a very reason than you did. But, but it’s obviously got, got multiple things going on.
AK: Parenthetically, because this, this is veering off topic…
LB: Yeah, sorry.
AK: My favourite— no, no, what I’m about to say is veering off topic— um, my favourite Nabokov, I just wanted to recommend, I don’t think it’s his best, but it’s the one I like most, is The Luzhin Defence, because it’s particularly about, um, addiction, to games, in particular chess…
AK: And about the context [here?], and it’s worth mentioning just very briefly, Stefan Zweig, who wrote, among other things, um, stories which inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel. Zweig wrote a novella or a short story called “A Chess Story”, which touches on very similar themes to The Luzhin Defence, and if you have an interest in the way that humans interact with games, and the way that was relevant long before, ah, video games were a thing, and The Luzhin Defence and Stefan Zweig’s “A Chess Story” are both very good reads.
LB: Good rec. But back to— let’s bring it back…
AK: (interjecting) Reliable narrators!
LB: …to the gothic.
AK: Er, so…
LB: Shall I go on the gothic trope bit, shall I just explain the context?
AK: You can, I think, I think, I think I, I do, before we, we talk about gothic I want to talk about statistics, and I think the, the thing we come— go back to with reliable narrators…
AK: No, it’s an, er, statistician’s adage, that you, er, you laughed at actually. I mean that caused you to laugh because it’s funny.
AK: Ah, which is, er, ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’.
LB: Um, that’s such a good…
AK: I mean at any time somebody tells you a story, there’ll be inaccuracies almost immediately.
AK: But that doesn’t mean it’s untrue in a meaningful way.
AK: And it doesn’t mean it’s useless, far from it.
AK: But you were gonna talk about the, the, the gothic, or I can talk about relevance theory?
LB: I mean, choose your poison. You do relevance theory. I’ll come in later.
AK: So as you probably are aware if you sat through one of these things before, I, I, erm, bumbled my way through a linguistics degree. And one of the things that struck home for me was, um, Deirdre Sperber and… no, Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber’s, um, work on relevance theory. And, uh, here’s the, the gist of it. We tend to think, especially if you come from a technological background, about utterances, language, as meaning that gets wrapped up and put in a box and passed across to somebody else and they then unwrap it. You encode something, the same way you encode a packet going down a fibre-optic line, and then it gets decoded at the other end, and what pops into their brain is the thought you intended to put there.
AK: And this obviously isn’t the way language works. At anything but the most primitive level. So here’s the— the canonical example is, I say to you, um, “It’s raining”. Now, you probably know it’s raining, er, so if I’m saying to you it’s raining, that might mean you’re blind, or it might mean that it’s raining too quietly for you to hear, most likely it means, “I think your plan to go to the cinema is a bad idea because we’ll get wet.”
AK: But I don’t say that, I say “It’s raining”, and so you, you get this really basic coding effect of, of, of I’ve, I transmitted information about the weather which you already know, and all the important stuff is the contextual effect, and what Sperber and Wilson, um, proposed, which makes sense to me, is that, um, when a— when a speaker and a listener both assume that the speaker is trying to say something that requires the minimum of effort to understand, but has the maximum of contextual effect, like, will have the biggest change on that person’s mental state. So that’s why, if you say, um, “It’s raining, so I don’t think we should go to the cinema, because you’ll get wet, which is uncomfortable”, then I’ll sound like an alien pretending to be a human.
LB: I would get very very bored of (inaudible).
AK: (laughs) Because the contextual effect, the ratio of contextual effect to, to processing effort is really low…
AK: Um, but if, if I say… my fricking daughter does this all the time, ah, she’ll go, I and she’ll just say the first letter of the word, she’s like, “Daddy, it’s r…”, and I have to guess “It’s raining”, so, so again, you’ve got this sort of very, very, very high processing effort for, for, for very limited contextual effect.
LB: Can I ask what might be quite a bad question?
AK: Go on.
LB: As somebody who didn’t do a linguistics degree. The thing that immediately pops into my head…
AK: I only got a 2:2.
LB: Pfft. Wow. Pfft. Cancelling the podcast. Um, the thing that immediately pops into my head is, ah, the, the very very important moments of transmission, so, for example, the phrase ‘Look out!’
LB: ‘Look out!’ very rarely says ‘Look out, because directly above you is scaffolding that has come loose and a man is about to drop a brick on your head’.
LB: Because if you’re going to say all that, the person would be dead. And the point of the transmission of information would be moot. So, is, so is that, so as a sort of armchair non-scientist, which is the best person to [lead these?]…
AK: Like linguists are scientists.
LB: (laughs) Um, is, is that because kind of when, when we were monkeys, like, it was most important that, that we had this very quick, um, transmission of information, that we would expect the other party to contextualise? Or, or is that… totally [non-valid?]
AK: I think, I think it, it, it’s, it’s, so again, I’m just talking now, right, I don’t, I don’t have—
LB: (stage whisper) That’s what this is…
AK: I don’t have a, any view on the evolutionary biology of linguistics, really. But— I think it’s all, all a general instance of the specific thing you’re talking about, because it takes time and effort to speak, and it takes time and effort to listen. So over time you’re gonna want to maximise the value that both people can get out of that.
AK: My favourite thing about what I’ve read in this theory is echoic mention, because it, it, it’s, it’s very hard to explain things like sarcasm or irony in terms of, um, traditional, ah, models of, of…
AK: Ah, how utterances work. Um, and the idea of echoic mention is, when you’re being sarcastic, you are mimicking a person and, er, or a potential person, and implying, uh, that, you, you don’t, er, agree with what the person is saying.
LB: Linguistic strawman!
LB: And I guess to tie this back to the, to the reliable or unreliable narrator theme, what you’re saying is that language intrinsically actually has this, this slightly um, what’s the word… subjective existence. There is no actual true linguistic reality, because what, what, what you mean is not necessarily what I will interpret it to mean.
AK: I think, ah—
LB: We are getting into philosophy here.
AK: We, we, we’re…
LB: We need more jokes.
AK: Ah, the…
LB: Back to bums.
AK: (chuckles). Ah, you said it. Ah, I, I think, I think that’s true, I think it’s, it’s not so much what— what’s true is what we care about, and this is, so Forster, fucking love, um, er, For— is it H.M. Forster, I can’t remember what’s his…
LB: E.M. Forster
AK: E.M. Forster. So…
LB: He does seem like a very nice man.
AK: He does seem like a very nice man, erm…
LB: But then I love a sad man.
AK: Ah, so he did a series of lectures, er, er, which got collected up in a book, Aspects of the Novel, and one of the things that Forster said is that all novels, the thing they all have in common, inasmuch as any novel, all, has everything in common…
AK: Is, um, that they all have a story. And you know, you get novels that don’t have a story in the traditional sense, but it’s basically the common, one of the common things of novels is they’re, they’re, they’re longish and they have a story. And he said that story is the lowest element of the novel, it’s like a spine or, here we go with bums, a tapeworm.
AK: And it sort of goes through the whole thing, um, and without it, it’s not a story, but it’s not— it’s the most basic form. It’s like, he cites Scheherezade and he says, Scheherezade didn’t survive because, um, she, ah, her characters were good, or her, um, her themes were compelling, she survived because she understood how to do suspense…
AK: And so he, well, you know, the, the king really cared about what was going to happen next.
AK: And that is the fundamental thing, he’s very rude about Sir Walter Scott, he says Sir Walter Scott basically can’t write, but he can do suspense, which is, is why he’s so successful. You know, I think you’ll probably say the same thing about Dan Brown, if it— and you know, Dan Brown is brilliant at suspense, and, and, and the writing is awful but he really understands how to do cliffhangers, so he’s very, very readable. And… um, but he says, the thing about a good novel is, you have the life of time, which is the story, you have what things happen when, and then you have the life of value, because when we think back over our lives, we don’t think of them in terms of calendars or maps.
AK: We think of this series of events, some of which bulk large and some of which bulk small. So that seems, I think, to tie into relevance theory, in that when you’re telling a, a story, you care, and you want the reader to care, about things. Whether they happen explicitly or implicitly or, or whatever, and it’s the decision about what to make the reader care about that’s important. And that comes back to games as well, because you systematise the mechanics that you want people to care about.
LB: It’s interesting that you say that, because one of the, one of the key examples of, of a gothic story that, yeah, really digs into this reliability of its narrator is The Turn of the Screw.
AK: Which I know you love.
LB: Well, (slight laugh) I have a tendency to have very strong opinions, not necessarily based on any knowledge whatsoever. So I did have a bit of a feud with my dad for years, when he would maintain that The Turn of the Screw was the best thing that had ever been written, and I would maintain just as definitely that it was definitely not the best thing that had ever been written, and it’s like, his love of Dickens is proof that I was right. And eventually I read it and it turned out that my father was right. Ah, it’s a really good book, understandably…
AK: Did you say your father was right?
LB: No, that was echo, it’s an unreliable narrator.
AK: (deep laugh)
LB: Anyway. The point is, The Turn of the Screw is, is probably the most cited example of this being used. Um, exceptionally well. And I… recommend that you read it, if you haven’t, it’s, it’s not, ah, super long, Henry James has a tendency to write very long sentences but he’s an excellent writer so you can get through him. And the basic premise is, um, it’s Christmas Eve and, um, a bunch of people are gathering together to tell specifically kind of spooky stories. And somebody has this manuscript that they say, um, is from a governess they know who is now dead. And they read this manuscript and that takes the, the majority of the rest of the novel, and it tells the story of a governess who is, long story short, sent to look after two children, there’s some questions about why she was chosen, and what her feelings are about the position, um, but all the way through, the children are lovely, um, and we, we think they’re great and she thinks they’re great and there’s, er kind of a question mark over the little boy and, and why he’s been sent back from school, it’s kind of a, a cloud, they’re not really sure about… and over time, um, she starts seeing, the governess starts seeing these two ghosts around the property— a man and a woman. Um, and she ends up being convinced that, ah, each one of them has a particular attachment to one of the children that she is guarding, and that she, er, also becomes, um, aware that the children can see the ghosts too. So, it becomes this very stressful story of this governess trying to protect her wards, whom she loves, and it all goes pear-shaped. Um, and there’s this very very famous ending, quite abrupt, quite shocking, which leaves a lot of, of questions unanswered. And there’s been a huge debate over time, because it’s a brilliant story and it has captured people’s imaginations, over how much of the narrative we can actually believe from this governess. You know, maybe she’s just telling the truth, and then it’s just a good old spooky ghost story that’s a bit scary. Great. Maybe, um, she is deliberately not telling the truth, because she is in some way less neutral than we think. Maybe she has a mental issue, which means she isn’t actually capable of telling the right story, or, or maybe there’s a big, ah, bunch of criticism that says, you know, ah, from a, ah psychoanalytic feminist postmodern reading, it’s all about sexual repression, which has also been there, but, but also doesn’t tell the whole story, and ultimately…
LB: …(long pause) lady bums, I suppose. Um, but ultimately, the, the critique has kind of fizzled out, because somebody in the, the New York Times in the ‘60s sort of said the best thing about it and we all were like ‘Oh yeah, he’s right’, um, and he said that basically, trying to work out what the truth actually is…
LB: …beautifully takes, and chips away at the, the excellence of the story itself, because quite clearly, Henry James did not want us to take away one particular narrative, he clearly wanted us to take away everything at once, and, and have lots of questions over what really happened and what, you know, who she is and… and it’s the ambiguity itself that is the point of the story, not the actual linear number of events that led up to the, to the, the plot.
AK: I think, and I think— I mean, obviously you’re right, and I think that crystallises for me one of the things about reliable narrators, is, is that we actually really really want reliable narrators. And one of the hallmarks of, um…
LB: It’s bedtime stories, isn’t it?
AK: Well, I was gonna say something different. I was gonna say geek culture. People want to know what canon is. So this is something that comes up in Cultist Simulator all the time. And of course what we did in Cultist Simulator is, is that there are, um, multiple valid versions of what’s happened, you know, so, what, what, what the Histories are. But for example, I was always entertained that Star Wars, at one point…
LB: I knew you would go here…
AK: Yeah, the, there was a wiki, um, which classified canonicity at four levels. So there’s sort of the, the, the lowest level, um, was just stuff that, um, [that was handled?] in the Expanded Universe, um, and then there was stuff that just happened in the, sort of, less well-regarded films, and then then there was stuff that had happened in the actual films, but then the G-level was stuff that George Lucas himself had said. So, um, er, if… Luke Skywalker had said one thing in the first Star Wars film, and George Lucas said something that contradicted what appeared to be the case in the universe, then that was ipso facto more correct. And, uh, I, they, they stopped doing that, anyway, and I don’t imagine [it’d hold up?] very well now Lucas sold the rights for four million dollars. But…
LB: As little as that?
AK: Uh, people were (inaudible) there was a lot of debate over whether it was a lot or a little. Because it’s a lot for a creative property, but it’s a little…
LB: I think if I had sold Star Wars for four million dollars…
AK: Billion. Billion.
LB: That makes a lot more sense.
AK: Oh god no.
LB: I was thinking! What an idiot!
LB: Okay. Anyway, go back.
AK: And we, we really want to believe in the fundamental reality of something we love. Laura Miller, who is a, something fancy like The New York Times, book critic, or used to be, wrote a sort of perplexed, um, and quite cross, very readable, um, literary biography called The Magician’s Bookʼ, in which she talked about how she loved C.S. Lewis when she was growing up, and she still has this tremendous fondness for Narnia, which she finds very difficult to reconcile with her sort of sophisticated literary apprehension of some of the, um, more naive things in it, not to mention the fact that the whole thing is a gigantic Trojan horse, intended to smuggle Christianity into the minds of unsuspecting children…
LB: Yeah, that’s where he lost me.
AK: Which she, she hated. And, and, and she, she, but one of the things she said that stayed with me is that she really wanted to believe that there was a, an enchanted door or wardrobe she could step through, and end up in Narnia, that there was some fundamental reality that, that, um, Lewis had a connection to, and you know, when you really love a world or a setting, um, or a story, that’s often what we feel— we want to, to, um, have a direct connection to it.
AK: And I think that’s why we look for reliable narrators, because if there is a reliable narrator, who’s telling you what, big air quotes, “actually happened”, then you can participate more excitingly in the reality of it. Quick plug for a book, er, I can’t remember the author, but you can find it easily enough, it’s, it’s…
LB: Is it a plug if you haven’t written it?
AK: No, it’s not a, yeah, not a plug, quick enthusiasm, um, it’s called As If… I think it’s called As If: the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality.
LB: [How wild?]
AK: Yeah. Ah, I can’t, um, can’t quite remember the author, but it’s, it’s a, a fun survey of…
LB: I will find it and put it in the notes for this episode.
AK: Please do. It’s a fun survey of, of, of the way that our sort of understanding of shared, or, or built worlds developed through Lovecraft, Tolkien, Conan Doyle, um, around all of whom our, our understanding of what “actually happened in a story”, and the ironic distance of understanding it wasn’t real but has internal consistency was really [configured?].
LB: You see, the, the, I mean, this podcast has been all interesting and all that jazz, but like, it’s been a disaster, because we haven’t talked about Lovecraft at all. And I had loads of things to say about it, bec— well, um, the key takeaway that I discovered while thinking about the topic was that he doesn’t use unreliable narrators. We have a number of people who go mad, that’s quite a traditional trope…
AK: That’s a good point!
LB: But he creates this really frightening narrative, and never once do we think, “But do the Old Ones exist?” It’s like, “no, no, they do, they’re up the stairs, um, one of them has a flute, one of them is made of legs, and the other one sits in the forest and has babies every night, and they’re really horrible”, um, but, but that’s never in question! And it’s astonishing, ‘cause the whole of Lovecraft’s kind of style is about the things the things you see out the corner of your eye and the things that you can’t comprehend ‘cause we’re tiny little flesh bugs on the earth and if you do your brain will explode, but he does all that with the, with this fundamental core that what he is talking about is true, and I think we should do a whole different podcast about that, ‘cause we’re out of time.
AK: I— I think we should; very briefly, I, I can think of—
LB: I mean just was—
AK: —one exception, but I think the exception very much demonstrates that you’re basically right.
LB: Is it “The Temple”?
LB: “The Temple” is an exception, but I’m gonna ignore it—
AK: Is that the one where the, the twist (sorry for the spoiler) is that he turns out to be dead?
LB: Ah, it’s, it’s the, it’s the twist that it’s a German submarine captain?
AK: No, I don’t, I don’t know that one.
LB: Mm, I know, and, exactly!
AK: But there’s the one, one where somebody escapes from what they think is, like, their ancestral home, and it turns out they’ve basically been in a tomb, and they, they then see themselves in a mirror and they realise…
LB: I don’t think I’ve read that one!
AK: Ah, I mean, er…
LB: And there’s lots, there’s lots [there, kind of,?] working through it…
AK: Chuck it in, chuck it in the notes.
LB: I guess my point is not so much that the narrator is unreliable…
LB: …because like I said, it’s very common for the narrator to have to be mentally unhinged, certainly at the end of the, of the story, if not at the start, but, but it’s that they are seemingly always experiencing this objective reality. We don’t really get the Turn of the Screw effect…
LB: …of, like, this person was bonkers, so maybe the story that they’ve told us is something we can’t rely on, there’s never that suggestion, it’s always like, ‘no, no, there was a shoggoth, in that cave…’
LB: Um, and then, then he’s mad.
AK: Yeah, you’re right. Yeah.
LB: And I just think that’s fascinating!
AK: I think there’s— extremely briefly, Gene Wolf, um, er, a lot of Gene Wolf’s narrators are unreliable, and they’re often, sort of, explicitly unreliable, like, there, there’s, there’s War— Soldier of— the protagonist of Soldier of the Mist, um, has a sort of Memento-like memory disorder, that means he, he can’t remember things from day to day and as he writes them down, and the— so his diary’s a theoretically objective record, but obviously it’s not, it’s not objective. And Gene Wolf’s trick, that he does, and I love Gene Wolf, er, God rest his soul, but, um, but he does it to the point where it’s annoying sometimes— is, is basically, um, you’ll think you’ll know what’s going on in the story, and then in like Chapter 5, he’ll casually mention the whole thing has been happening, like, inside a cat’s nose.
AK: As if you should have known this all along, and it reconfigures everything, and it’s brilliant, it takes a lot of discipline to do it, but that sort of happening not to mention is I think one of the subtler and more interesting forms of unreliable narration, because it doesn’t feel like it, usually feel like it breaches the contract with the reader.
LB: Well, I was gonna say that, in, not in, er, murder mysteries, we talked briefly about this off-air, and I mentioned that Agatha Christie…
AK: Oh yes.
LB: Has made use of the unreliable narrator several times in her books, and people really do feel betrayed, because the whole point of engaging with a murder mystery is, can you work out who, who did it, basically. It’s a whodunit! It’s not a ‘who says they didn’t and then turns out, for reasons that were not available to me, actually did it’. Um, but anyway. We do need to end, because people have lives to live, I suppose, um, so… we have to do another one on unreliable narrators, I think.
LB: Well, that is the noise of the computer telling us to shut the heck up. So thank you so much for listening, um, I will put all of the notes, um, from today’s discussion in the episode summary, so that you can read it, and tell us what you think, and… have a spooky day.